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The pandemic lockdown constructed our current political tinderbox. The resultant damage to the national and global economy, with millions of jobs lost, filled it with dry fuel. Then the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, under the knee of a police officer heedless of his cries, ignited the tinder. And suddenly our country is aflame with protests, spilling over into riots and looting and police overreactions, with too many of our political leaders, in both parties, seemingly incapable of doing anything but fanning the fires.
The events of the last ten days have been enough to convince someone like me, who has spent more than forty years in the study of politics, that I still haven’t got a clue about what will happen next in this great, sprawling, brawling republic of ours. I do not think the republic will fall. I do not despair of justice being done when the flames are put out. But neither do I think that perfect justice will ever prevail, for it never does. We will struggle on, as fellow citizens and as partisans, and no one will ever be perfectly satisfied that our problems have been solved.
In times like these, what I turn to—after the prayers of my faith—are the works on politics that I have studied and taught the most over the decades. In Plato’s Republic, to which I have returned many times, Socrates asks, “Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together and makes it one?” The answer his young interlocutor gives is “no,” and most if not all of us would say the same, believing that a political community is bound together by a shared understanding of justice—and a shared striving that justice be done.
Elsewhere Socrates suggests a community is a failure if it is “very many cities but not a city,” and that far too many places are really inhabited by two cities, “warring with each other, one of the poor, the other of the rich.” The Socratic “solution” to the political problem—with a merit-based class structure, the family eliminated in favor of total devotion to the city, and the rule of philosopher-kings—is best understood (as I’ve argued elsewhere) as an ironic project, intended to highlight the limits of the human capacity to achieve perfect justice.
Plato’s student Aristotle, in his Politics, takes up this same problem of unity and division, observing that “those regimes which look to the common advantage” are basically just, while “those which look only to the advantage of the rulers” are unjust, because “they involve mastery,” whereas a city with any claim to being just “is a partnership of free persons.” Aristotle too discusses the propensity of groups and classes to struggle for mastery and domination, and concludes that if it were possible to generate a large middle class—whose members neither despise the poor nor envy the rich—the chances of success for a free society of self-ruling people would be greatly improved. (A recent book by my late friend Leslie Rubin suggests that this middle-class republic, not a virtuous aristocracy, is Aristotle’s true teaching on the best political order.) Aristotle has good things to say on behalf of the rule of law, but he does not deceive himself that the law is ever fully independent of the question of who rules in the community.
Among the American founders, these problems of division and unity, of the rule of law and the rule of men, are nowhere more profoundly treated than in The Federalist. In the famous tenth essay, James Madison tackles what he called “the violence of faction”: the propensity of political societies to divide into groups formed around their felt sense of solidarity in a common interest, or a common view of justice, contending with other groups formed around other interests and views. This is a problem especially in democracies, where power belongs to the people. Some years ago, in a blog series on the Federalist, I described Madison’s innovative take on the problem this way:
The essay presents the novel idea that republics are both more just and more stable when constructed on a grand scale, rejecting the traditional republican model that looked ultimately back to the small, intimate polis of ancient Greece. Majorities in an extended republic will be constructed of more heterogeneous materials, forcing the compromises that produce more moderate majority rule. The “mischiefs of faction” are decisively ameliorated by the multiplication of interests—more of a bad thing producing a good thing, as I tell my students.
Yet as even the friendliest critics of American politics have pointed out, our constitutional framework cannot be wholly dependent on the operations of self-interest, however “enlightened” it may be. Madison himself recognized this when he said in Federalist no. 51 that “justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” This is the same Madison who said (in no. 55) that “republican government presupposes” the presence of “sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” With all the institutional arrangements of federalism, separation of powers, and independent courts of law, there is still a need in American politics for an irreducible minimum of civic virtue.
But civic virtue—a real devotion to what unites us, rather than to what advances our own selfish interest—is by nature a fairly dormant quality in human beings; it generally takes religion to sustain it, and statesmanship to call it forth. The finest exemplar of such statesmanship in our history was Abraham Lincoln, whose speeches repay close study. It was Lincoln who called on the “better angels of our nature” in his first inaugural address, and who pledged “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in his second. And it was Lincoln who pointedly reminded his listeners, in that same second inaugural, that it was the self-interest of some men in subjugating others that was the real cause of the “terrible war” through which the country had passed.
In American political life, the success of the founders’ political science has meant that our worst and most divisive political struggles have historically not been over class conflict. They have instead been, alas, over racial justice, a problem that the best of our early political leaders kicked down the road, and the worst of them exacerbated.
Meanwhile, the low politics of factional jostling among economic interests has been routinized in America. It can be boisterous, with plenty of arguments, even denunciations, but it involves plenty of accommodations and compromises too. There are times, however, as Lincoln knew, when such accommodating politics is inadequate, when the line must be drawn against compromise, and the high politics of intransigently demanding justice is called for. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this too, when he wrote from the Birmingham Jail that the terms “moderate” and “extremist” are misplaced when they are used to tell men and women made in the image of God that their “birthright of freedom” has to be put off until some unspecified future because the present moment is “untimely.” Accommodation and half measures—the stuff of everyday political life—will not do when we encounter the politics of mastery and subjugation. Aristotle’s “partnership of free persons” demands more.
More than a half century after the assassination of Dr. King, a black man’s death at the hands of the police has brought people into the streets to demand justice. An entirely reasonable argument can be made that policing in America is not the scene of systemic racism. But one needn’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” to recognize that the business of achieving greater justice between the races in the United States is yet unfinished. As Lincoln relentlessly argued, our country’s first principles are just; it is our practice of them that is defective. Plato may teach us that we can never achieve perfect justice, and that a belief that we can achieve it will lead to follies and even horrors. Still, with the Great Emancipator, we can and must say, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”